Young enthusiastic marketers and entrepreneurs alike are worried about not knowing if their product will sell or if they are on the right track, and will look out for confirmation from their potential customers in an attempt to put their fears to rest. You know you need to test and validate your ideas with your potential customers and believe that going out and ask the question to your customers will give you the insights you need to continue on your product launch journey. So you do it yourself or pay a market research company to pose the question to people out there: would you buy my product? The research findings are encouraging, you get some decent percentage of customers giving you a positive response. You are satisfied with your work and continue on your development journey. Some time later, when you eventually do launch your product nothing happens. The product does not reach the results you had expected. What did go wrong? why did this happen?

You don’t ask people to predict the future. Because they don’t know. That’s it. It is as simple as that.

I have been there myself so many times. And although something deep in my heart was telling me that we were not asking the right questions, people around me seemed so self-confident and experienced that i did not dare challenging them. So i want you to learn from others mistakes and don’t repeat them. And I am talking here about large big multi-billion dollar corporations with large marketing and market research department that have gone through this dangerous path. Many of them have waken up to better methods but I still see a lot of them falling into old market research traps.

But then what DO YOU ask instead? How do you get to some precious insights and understanding into your customers attitudes and behaviours that is crucial, for you to develop the right solution for them. Let’s look into it closer.

In this post I will share my experience on what you can expect from a survey, how to ask better questions and how to get to insights that will guide you and inspire you as you develop your dream products and launch them.

So let’s jump straight into it.

“There is nothing so terrible as activity without insight.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Why do we do market research

Being close to our customers and understanding their needs and pain is fundamental to serve our customers well and today everyone is advocating to talk to your customer or your Ideal Customer as much as you can. Dean Graziosi said at a recent event ” You should know your customer so well, that you can finish their sentences” – powerful isn’t it? He clearly is referring to the relationships in our lives when we know somebody so well that words are not needed: we can read them in what they do and how they behave. However, you can only get to that point, if you did spend enough quality time with your customers and you were actively listening. Actively listening means you try to hold back on your believes and really ask questions to understand, not to confirm your assumptions.

But so, my point that, because everyone woke up to a hysteria of wanting to get insights about their customers, this led to an exponential growth of consultancy companies who help individuals and corporations to get out there and approach ideal customers on behalf of their clients.
Nothing bad here.
The problem is not everyone knows really what they are doing and the result could be more damaging than useful.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Poor market research has drowned thousands of potential great ideas. I have experienced myself going with crappy mock-ups of products and have x people sitting around the table start over-rationalising their affirmation, reinforcing one another, play with product in a total unrealistic setting like a room with a one-way mirror on one side, where there are people sitting and watching. People become like actors and play a role. The most shy ones sit back on their chair and just wait to get their check at the end, some are more dominant and bias everybody else’s opinions. Most of the times, if the moderator is good, some people will have a great time and leave happy of the time spent.
And you, who maybe were among the one sitting in the backroom (and BTW make sure you do go there and listen yourself every-time you can) feel either reassured about your initial hypothesis or in the case we are discussing, totally disappointed and in disbelief of the harsh comments you received from your potential customers.

If you push your customer to over-rationalise their answer and come up with a smart statement about their believes and behaviour, you run the risk of blindly believing what you just heard and act upon it.

I have seen people completely ignoring what they just heard, since they did not believe it was true – even people completely manipulating the story they heard to their own liking – or, at total the opposite: going back to their managers heads down, depressed about the consumer feedback and worried to have to start all over again.
The question is: what did you ask your potential customers? and are you sure they gave you a relevant important feedback or did you ask them something they could not honestly answer?

How do you know if you are doing things right.

In some cases you have to rely on your gut feeling and use your common sense.
So often we don’t trust ourselves and instead follow the advise of people that we believe know it better.
I always recommend “put yourself on the other side: what are you as a customer able to answer and what would you like your vendor/supplier to know about you that would help them serve you better”.

There are of course a lot of books and literature about it, so I am not going to list everything here; however, I would like you to remember the following 3 tips:

1. Avoid asking Yes/No question. The world is not always binary, right? and you are asking people to either affirm or deny something they might not necessarily know, and you don’t really know why they answering the way they do.

2. Be careful when you probe with ” why do you say that?” . This is the time in which people definitely don’t want to appear stupid or inconsistent and the dance of over-rationalising and over-thinking starts… and it can lead to very dangerous conclusions. (Check further down what to ask instead).

3. Don’t ask people to predict the future. Because: can you? so why do you expect them to be able to. No one can. We can only speculate. And speculation are not worth much if you are trying to make money out of the idea you are exploring.

How the brain works

You can skip this paragraph if you are eager to read the next one; however, I adding this here because because understanding how the brain works is a crucial milestone in understanding your consumers (as well as yourself of course) and have better interactions with them when you most need feedback.

The human brain is made of 3 main parts:

1. The Neocortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for rational and analytical thinking. It is the part of our brain that helps us understand facts and figures, features, benefits. Now. The neocortex is also responsible for language: it is the part of the brain that is capable of articulating thoughts in a way other humans understand, i.e. through a common language. This is the youngest part of our brain, the one we are not born with and that we develop in the first years of our lives.

2. The Limbic System. This is the middle section of the human brain. It is the part of the brain responsible for all our feelings, like trust and loyalty. It is the part of brain critical for the formation of memories. It is the part of the brain responsible for all our behaviours and decision making. This is where “gut feelings” come from. It’s not our stomach. It’s a feeling we get about a decisions we have to make that we struggle to explain. In fact, unlike the neocortex, the limbic system has no capacity for language!

3. The R complex. This is the core of the brain, the centre. Snakes and lizards have this brain only – which I think says it all and we should not dig deeper here about it.

The separation of powers between the limbic system and the neocortex is the biological reason why we sometimes find it difficult to
– put our feelings into words (e.g. easier to smile than to say I love you),
– explain our actions (“I don’t know why I just did that!”) or
– justify our decisions (“It felt right”).

So you see where I am going?
When we ask people to tell us how they feel about a product we are taking a risk that the rational part of the brain takes over and explains while at the end of the day it is the other part, the neocortex, that has the last saying about what your customer will actually do.

I know I am simplifying things here. I am mainly being provocative to awaken your awareness on crucial elements of customer understanding. The human brain is a complex organ and if we are out there to generate insights, we might as well go smart about it and at least know that an answer is not always revealing the truth.
And I personally find these topics extremely fascinating. If you want to learn more about it, I can encourage you to read the book from Simon Sinek “Start with Why“, who touches upon these topics when walking us through the Golden Triangle.

What you should ask instead

Speaking to customers and understanding their needs and pain points is fundamental for us to develop product and solutions that they will ultimately buy, so for me the key element of the relationship with our customers is based on a huge amount of observations and probing to understand not to validate. I know this is easier said than done and again I need to introduce here another element of human behaviour which is around laziness. We are looking for the easy way, the fast way. I have fallen in this trap numerous times. Why? Because it is a survival mechanism in its origin: if we can achieve the same result with half of the effort, what is wrong with it, right?!

The problem is that, unfortunately, if you really want to understand something you have to go deep – vertical and horizontal. We have to understand the context, the background to be able to put the information into perspective and avoid to apply your reality to the reality of the person you have in front of you. The tendency is to project our own autobiography into others’ needs. This is why taking the time to understand what the needs are and where they are coming from takes quality time and an open mind.

If you want to develop a true relationship with your customes through your products and services, you need to make sure the relationship is not transactional but has deeper roots.

Your customer is looking forward to get his hands on the product you are developing if it answers a need, it relieves a pain point or solves a problem. So your efforts should be focusing on really get that relationship going, that deep understanding of the needs.

When you have something that you think really rocks then by all means go and present it to them, get feedback and do it as early as possible so you are still on time to make adjustments and tweak it even more to their needs.

When recently working with IDEO, which I think you will have heard about (and if not, here is a link to their website), for the first time I heard somebody put the name to what I had been lingering in my mind for ages! they called out the difference between market research and design research which really resonates with me and I believe it is so important.

Design research is about understanding user needs, behaviours and attitudes towards a given product or service through a (low-fi) prototype; your customer can in this way interact with it, and explore in greater detail. And just to clarify: this is a qualitative one to one interview type of research, no large audience please.
This gives you insights into the experience users want and expect, which means insight-led design changes can be implemented with confidence. And is a way to generate insight to further fine-tune your solution or pivot it if needed.

As mentioned before: the most important reason for you to go into this type of research is for genuinely use the opportunity to further understand the pain point of your customer and confirm and refine your assumptions or replace them with ones that are more valuable and true.

What I really want to stress here is that most of the time if you want to serve your customer well you have to spend a lot of time with them (or maybe you are your customer too!) and observe with an open mind behaviours and attitudes and try yourself to connect the dots: what is behind this behaviour? why is this person behaving like that?
And when you come up with an hypothesis, go out and find out if this is true.

The big difference compared to the “wrong” question I discussed earlier is that here you are observing behaviours that already happened and that must have a motivation behind them. So questioning these is a good practice. Now, many people will be surprised by you asking and might not know why they have done what they have done. Some people can. Search for more of those people. And for the ones that don’t know, keep asking contextual question to get the full picture, and you might be able to come up with the answer together. Makes sense?

So bottom line: observe observe observe. No prediction question. No Yes or No question.

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